Featured Writer Seethalakshmi’s When breath becomes air
Death has its strange ways to connect you to yourself, your fears, anxieties, nightmares, belief system and your masked truth that are generally ignored or buried deep down. Like an earthquake, unprecedented, it shakes you off the floor with hopes and dreams crashing down right before your eyes. But what matters is the aftermath-do you choose to breathe through the rubbles fighting to survive or succumb to the surrounding darkness?
It’s just a day before I was celebrating my daughter’s birthday with her incessant plans for the next year—a listicle on gifts as refrains, sounding poetic in her voice. Even before the previous day’s celebration mood could end, the day woke me up to the haunting “news” of a dear friend’s demise (no thanks to Covid-19), crippling my ability to process or even think to come to terms with it.
How do you move forward knowing that there is no possible way to go back to get a person back to life; what’s the way forward? You get that helpless feeling right where you start questioning from everything subtle to substantial. You get it right? Especially when it comes to the simple acts like eating, sleeping or carrying on with your routine, it guilts you or mocks you for moving on. And maybe a week down the line or months or years down the line, you tend to forget until and unless a random memory spent together with the person decides to take you on a whirling ride of confusing emotions wanting you to gasp for breath. This grief, this agony comes in swirls and waves.
It’s during this phase (there is a pang of guilt to call it a phase but let’s be honest, we grieve in phases, don’t we?) that a book that was sitting in the to-be-read list for long, caught my attention with its title-When breath becomes air. I believe that books too come into your life in a certain pattern, at a certain time. If you had noticed, there would always be some books in our bookshelves, catching dust but never our attention until a day something happens and suddenly we feel and find as though the book is calling us. I see you nod your head and that’s exactly what happened with this book. I had it downloaded on kindle long back but didn’t read it though and suddenly I find myself seeking solace in its pages.
Right from the title, it made me wonder if the author, Paul Kalanithi, wants the reader to introspect when breath becomes air or if the author is trying to narrate a lived experience when breath becomes air. And as one gets to read the book, it becomes very clear that it’s for both reasons. How many times have we ever felt the necessity to analyze or understand death without adding a negative connotation to it? Why do we consider it taboo to talk about death? Isn’t life as true as death, like breath, as true as air? See the analogy? Doesn’t this give a positive sense to death? Are we fearing death unnecessarily? Is it the fear of facing mortality that cripples us more than the death itself?
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and a writer and this book, When breath becomes air, was written when he was thirty-six years old and on the verge of completing his decade long training as a neurosurgeon. Unfortunately, it was also the time when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. His life’s irony makes him an efficient neurosurgeon treating dying patients while he becomes a patient struggling to live with just days left.
In this book as Paul processes every day, every plan, every thought knowing that his death is not afar, he essentially tries to capture the meaning of what makes life worth living in the face of death. This book is not any casual read. It is a life-affirming philosophical read, an experience that helps us reflect on our living, the work we do, the relationships we value and the values we breathe in and out.
As I read through the book, it only made me value life and the gifts that it comes with, even more. I wouldn’t say I could comprehend what death exactly means or that I have become more evolved or enlightened to say I don’t feel the grief and agony that comes with death, anymore. Certainly not. I now feel that with every death that we witness, we just get stronger and more conscious of our living. While we may be busy chasing our goals, it’s important to be reminded to be aware of what holds us together and appreciate the gift of life we breathe.
As Paul Kalanithi asks himself- “If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?”, we need to ask ourselves too. Do we ever get to know when breath becomes air when we are just not conscious of our breath at this moment? When breath becomes air, is it or isn’t it becoming more expanse like a river merging with the ocean. How do we see this merging- an expanse, freedom or a loss of identity? Then, isn't death only a matter of the mind?
The demise of my dear friend did shake me off my feet. But as I process and reflect, I’m at this place where I feel the essence of her being, her smile, her charisma, the values she held are still there lingering in the air I breathe. I wouldn’t say this is the right or wrong way of processing, but this is how I’m doing and this is where I’m right now. And there would come a day when my breath would become air too and the loss of the body would feel like liberation, I guess. The breath the body would have been taking would then become a union with an expanse, the source, where eternal freedom would reign.
As I finish to pen this trying to make sense of the myriad of emotions that death had brought along, I wish to leave you with these lines which finds a place in the introduction of the book-When breath becomes air, for you to ponder & process:
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.
-Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, “Caelica83”
About the writer :
Seethalakshmi is a Poetpreneur who finds more sense of independence and empowerment in calling herself a Homemaker first. An empath by nature with an unshakeable faith in the potential of words to hold the healing power, she customizes poetry helping many relationships bond stronger. Mother to a 9-year-old, she finds joy in playing and exploring kids’ literature with her daughter, reviewing books, upcycling junk for art and gardening. Find her musings here: www.promisingpoetry.org
This piece was written as Seetha’s final assignment for a six-week Creative Nonfiction writing workshop.